By Lam Siu-Bun, translated by Nauyuoh and Leung Chun Hei from the 2014 Orientation Issues of the CUHK Student Press

If we can understand how universities place us within a competitive sphere, we may better comprehend the issue of estrangement within CUHK.

The estrangement may be ubiquitous

Among the undergraduates of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) during 2013-14, there were 14,109 locals and 1,780 non-local students, a majority of the latter group—1,374 to be precise—were elite students from mainland China. In other words, there was about one mainland student in every ten students on campus.

However, I observed that both mainland and local students know rather little about each other, as if they are living in two parallel universes. No one initiates any conversation at class, let alone back at the dorms; they seem to never cross paths. Yet it only takes a few scrolls on local websites or social media like CUHK Secret to witness some stereotypes. For instance, local students believe that “mainland students like to steal from the communal fridges,” “mainland students don’t shower,” and mainland students think most locals are “angry youths” [1].

Why are we so divided when we are living on the same campus? Maybe, it is because we speak different languages, or it could be the varying habits and unique cultural backgrounds. However, this article cannot address all of these issues, so what I want to examine is: why are we so indifferent towards this sense of division, and even believe it is a matter of course? The most common answer might be that mainland students are only here for their studies, and since they are not staying for long, the division is not that big of a deal. Worse still, some local students even assume that mainland students  come to Hong Kong to “snatch resources.” They are not genuinely schoolmates, but competing rivals. Thus, the division is not unexpected, it is bound to happen.

However, if this is solely a confrontation between mainland and local students, the estrangement should only occur between these two communities. Yet, I noticed that local students are estranged from one another as well. In contrast to secondary school, university life is much more eventful: there are orientation camps, student organizations, and all sorts of courses from different departments for students to bond with each other. When we first enter the university, it is easy to meet dozens of new people in a single day, but that is exactly why most relationships are no more than a nodding acquaintance. These are vastly different from the friendships formed during secondary school, when everyone was together all the time. Local students might be able to make few good friends through O’camp or student organizations, but most people who leave the classroom right after classes are not expecting to get acquainted with anyone else. They will only reluctantly talk with others “voluntarily” during  group discussions, but purely for the sake of finding group members, as they had no choice but to do so. As time passes, even previous project group members or hallmates may stop talking with each other, and gradually lose touch. But it does not matter to most people—it is not really a big deal. These indifferent attitudes towards the ongoing division are not too different from the situation with mainland students. Yet how exactly should we go about understanding these apathetic attitudes?

Universities degenerated into for-profit schools

What is the nature of the university? Many would tell us that the university is a place for you to pursue ideals, a place for you to pursue knowledge, and a place to cultivate independent personality…

To be frank, this kind of empty talk may only appear on the official website for publicity or public speeches made by school officials. But in fact, even the official words may not be so “glamorous” at all. Former Financial Secretary and Chairman of the  first University Grants Committee (UGC) Antony Leung Kam-chung, repeatedly emphasized how, in view of the increasingly fierce competition under globalization, education should complement the transformation of the global economy (from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy), and how Hong Kong’s own “competitiveness” should be strengthened. He had even written, “It is very clear that education is to nurture talents, and that the future is unlimited, and this future includes both future prospects and money.” [2]

To put it bluntly, in the eyes of Leung, a senior official who has absolute power in the education sector in Hong Kong, universities are actually just training institutes to meet society’s demand for talents. At the extreme, universities in his mind were actually no different from “learning shops.” Students pay an annual tuition fee, and then receive several years of training in exchange for a beautiful graduation certificate. On one hand, the university is certainly  providing labor to cater for market needs, on the other hand, it is also a hen that lays golden eggs, earning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of  “investment” each year  (direct quote from Leung) [2]. The differences between universities and normal stores are that the groups involved in the interests of universities, and their way of transfer, are far more complicated than our general understanding of that of enterprises. (This point will be elaborated later.) With such an understanding, it is not difficult for us to imagine that many universities produce the best “goods” (i.e., diplomas) in order to make the most profit.

One of the most effective ways, of course, is to improve their own reputation and image, and to improve the school’s international ranking. The higher a school’s ranking, the more likely its graduates will be recognized by companies. This is evident from the salaries of graduates: according to the UGC, among the eight UGC-funded universities, except for the Faculty of Education, the top three graduates’ salaries are HKU, CUHK and HKUST, at HKD$236,000, $227,000 and $186,000 respectively, which is a significant gap from the $140,000 of LU and CityU. [3] The naked truth is that some companies, especially large multinational companies such as investment banks, international accounting firms, and companies listed on Fortune Global 500, etc., generally only consider students from the “Big Three” [HKU, CUHK, and HKUST], while graduates from other institutions may not be accepted at all.

One effective way to improve international rankings is to improve internationalization indicators, where the university’s first priority is to put emphasis on professors’ papers and research. This is because it is a major concern in international rankings. In one of the most popular international rankings, QS, citations per faculty account for 20% of the total weight. In other words, the more citations professors receive for their research, the higher QS ranking the university will be. Therefore, universities require professors to publish regularly in international journals to increase their chances of being cited by other scholars and thus improve the universities’ ranking. Therefore, for many professors, teaching is at best a “side job,” while research is their “main job.” If they do not conduct enough research, they could lose their jobs at any time. But isn’t the university a place for students to learn? Why is the main job of professors now becoming research and thesis publication that has nearly nothing to do with students?

In addition, the admission of foreign students is an important part of driving the internationalization of universities. This is because the proportion of international students and teaching staff (international orientation) also accounts for 10% of the QS ranking. The government is certainly supportive of this, as it is evident by the massive increase in the percentage of non-local students at the UGC-funded universities: 2% before 1998, 10% in 2005 when Donald Tsang (former Chief Executive of Hong Kong) took office, and 20% now (2013). Therefore, the higher the percentage of non-local students, the higher the score in the ranking. The higher the ranking, the better the reputation of the school, the easier it is to get fundings. The whole logic of “school governance” is actually a set of business logic. A university is no different from a store, so it is not an exaggeration to call it a “learning shop.”

Why particularly enroll mainland students?

Unlike ordinary businesses, the interests of this “learning shop” are far more complicated, the stakeholders do not tuck money straight into their wallets like business owners. For example, any professors’ research project requires funding; from the university’s administrative perspective, its bureaucrats only consider how to facilitate their work, which will benefit from extra backing; as for the president and the school’s executives, they might take advantage of their accomplishments in office to increase their political capital. This can be recognized by observing the current occupation of two of Chinese University’s previous presidents–Arthur Li is the non-official member of the Executive Council, and Lawrence Lau is a Member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Furthermore, money is not the only interest of this learning shop; attracting “elites” is equally important. Not only do the professors wish to be granted funds, but they also want to enlist top students who are more efficient and do better research. As for the university, recruiting elites improves the school’s reputation. For example, in 2012, The University of Hong Kong became the topic of discussion in mainland China for admitting 21 top-scoring students from different provinces and took over major news headlines in Hong Kong.

But the question is: why does CUHK attract elites who are mainly from mainland China when it targets top students globally?

Frankly speaking, international students have such minimal understanding of local universities that, not only are they unfamiliar with the respective cultural backgrounds of the universities, but they also might not have even heard of CUHK–despite it being one of the top 100 universities in the world. This is similar to Hongkongers not knowing many foreign universities, such as the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the ESSEC Business School in France. These are some of the best universities in Germany and France, and yet most of us have never heard of them. However, this is not limited to international students, in fact, students from mainland China are pretty unfamiliar with universities in Hong Kong too. Mainland students may have heard of some names at most, but largely ignorant about the strengths and weaknesses of each school–certainly not as well informed about Peking and Tsinghua University or other universities in their home country. Therefore, the aforementioned question carries greater significance: why does the CUHK still manage to attract so many elite students from the mainland? 

The support from China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) is certainly the most important. In February 1999, the MOE and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of The State Council jointly declared that universities in Hong Kong had agreed to entrust mainland universities to enroll freshmen [on behalf of Hong Kong universities]. These entrusted universities are some of the most prestigious ones, such as Peking and Tsinghua University. Naturally, every admitted student was the cream of the crop. The following year, several prominent high schools such as Shanghai High School, Beijing No. 4 High School, and the Affiliated High School of Peking University actively promoted Hong Kong universities to students and parents, claiming it is equally reputable to be enrolled in the University of Hong Kong as in Peking and Tsinghua. This sort of support is unlikely to be provided from any other countries; it is difficult to imagine Harvard or Cambridge willing to partner with CUHK and allow it to enrol students on their campus. 

Moreover, many top students from mainland China wish to pursue their higher education abroad, but are self-conscious that their English language proficiency, especially their speaking skills, may not meet foreign universities’ standards yet. When this is factored in with the lack of information about universities abroad, many considered universities in Hong Kong as a springboard for further studies. Mainland students generally believe that Hong Kong is more in line with international standards in various aspects, which is beneficial for studying overseas in the future. Take the academic environment as an example, universities in Hong Kong are quite similar to those abroad, the emphasis is being placed on holistic learning, exams are not the only assessment criteria, there may be reports, tutorial discussions, tests, exams and more to evaluate multiple aspects of students’ learning.

Of course, as a learning shop, CUHK is more than delighted to enrol top students from the mainland. As mentioned, the enrolment itself already improved the reputation of CUHK. In fact, in 2012, among the students whom CUHK admitted from Beijing, the lowest score was 134 marks above the admission score for first-tier (key) universities. Entry requirements for few other Hong Kong universities were also higher than Peking and Tsinghua University’s average enrolment score. Additionally, just as previously stated by Leung, education itself is a kind of “investment business.” CUHK alone admitted about 5,000 post-graduate students from the mainland in 2013, if we calculate with the minimum tuition fee of RMB ¥130,000, these 5000 post-grads would yield a total revenue of RMB ¥650 million for the school.

However, for CUHK, what is even more important than the RMB ¥ 650 million, are the elites and world university ranking. When this batch of elites graduates, most of them would likely enter good companies and get a good job, which naturally further improves CUHK’s ranking. This is because “Recruiter Review” weighs 10% amongst the indicators QS World Universities Ranking use. In other words, if this batch of elite graduates enters distinguished enterprises like investment banks or Global 500, CUHK’s international rankings will no doubt rise again. A higher university ranking will aid the university’s fundraising. In 2013, HKU and CUHK raised nearly HKD $600 million under the Sixth Matching Grant Scheme, which was significantly higher than other universities. Under this scheme, the more funds the school raises, the larger the government grants are (hence the term “matching grant”), making CUHK even wealthier. This shows the importance of international university rankings. 

We are all elitesestrangement and anxiety of the elites in the “learning store”

Let us return to the question in the beginning: beginning: why is the separation, either between mainland and local students or between local students themselves, “a matter of course”? Through the detailed analysis I have just written on the nature of university, what I was trying to point out is that under the fierce competition of globalization, the university positions itself as a store [for-profit school in some sense], and the ability of students is still the primary admission criteria. Students’ ethnicity is only the secondary concern (of course, it is also willing to take in more non-locals as they can help with international ranking). So as long as you are in the top 18% of local students or the top 0.1% in the mainland, you will have a chance of getting into CUHK. As an analogy, it is actually the same as the 7-11 convenience store in the Shatin MTR station: it does not just sell stuff to people in Shatin, it also sells things to Americans. Compared to the 7-11, CUHK does not sell soda and chocolates, instead, it sells graduation certificates. Therefore, there is no geographical restriction on who can buy the certificates. Local students can make a purchase, so can mainland students—as long as you are an elite. 

The key question is, why do we want to become elites?

Being an elite not only indicates having exceptional capabilities, but it also implicitly guarantees a livelihood. Living in a capitalist society, the reward we get is positively correlated with our proficiency and ability. There may be many reasons why we wish to become elites. Some of us want a high-paying job, but for others, it may well be that we cannot risk failing or being “derailed” from life. We cannot ensure survival without a degree in the era of a knowledge-based economy. (Do you remember the above-mentioned salary scale of the top eight local universities? If people with a university degree are already under such financial pressure, one could only wonder how challenging it is for people who only have a high school qualification.)

Therefore, what we ultimately need, is a graduation certificate. This has become a deep-rooted anxiety for university students, who see other activities in university such as dating, joining student organizations, and living in halls merely as a prop while they are “gearing up” for graduation. If we really want to have fun, why not dump our degrees and party somewhere else? If we want to travel and go on an adventure, why not just apply for a working holiday when we are still young, and earn money as we play? This is not to say all university students only have their eyes set on future salaries, but I believe everyone clearly understands that whether to have fun or to follow our dreams, we still need money.

Therefore, the previous explanation that “mainland students are only here for their studies, since they won’t be staying for long, and the division with local students is only a matter of course” is partially correct. A more elaborate and precise explanation should be: “We are all here for a graduate certificate to ensure getting better opportunities when we enter the labour market, and thereby lead better lives. We will be gone when we are done.” Hence, it is not hard to understand why we could not let social life disrupt our studies even if we dislike loneliness at the same time. While the majority of us are not knowledge-craving, we still spend so much time to prepare and “study” whenever tests and exams are around the corner, to aim for good grades. We are clear that all this effort is to get a strong, competitive graduate certificate after four years. Instead of claiming local students are indifferent toward the estrangement within themselves and mainland students, the real issue is how local and mainland students have both overlooked the nature of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It has nothing to do with communities, but the key concern is what kind of university, and what kind of future we want.

[1] Young People Who Are Extremely Nationalistic and Patriotic. 憤青 Cantonese Jyutping: fan5cing1/ Putonghua Pinyin: fen4qing1

[2] Excerpt from “The Idea Behind the Education Industry Debate,” Hong Kong Economic Journal, 2009-12-01, Cover Story

[3] Excerpt from “The Idea Behind the Education Industry Debate,” Hong Kong Economic Journal , 2009-12-01, Cover Story

[4] Apple Daily.

[5] The utoff line of the admission score for first-tier (key) universities. Putonghua Pinyin:Yi4ben3xian4 /Jyutping: jat1bun2sin3. [6] Openness to the O utside World, Reform from the Inside – Mainland Colleges and Universities Deal with the Loss of Quality Students.


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